Making sense of the questions
Dave Greenlund attaches a handle to a
mug he created for coffee hour at
Peace Lutheran. (Photo/Dave Greenlund)
By Neil Ellis Orts
"I grew up in the inner city of Chicago and painting was the way to make sense of the world I was living in."
That is how Dave Greenlund, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Lauderdale, Minn., describes his first impulse to make art. As a young boy, his first medium was the canvas; he concentrated on cityscapes.
Dave grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where gang violence was rampant. Each year at Christmas local parks would put up crosses for every young person who had died in the neighborhood that year. Some years, there were more than 200 crosses.
"Growing up in a place where there's a lot of violence, a good portion of it is done to kids. Being one of those kids, you just don't have the option to avoid it," Dave says. "You don't have a car, you get on a bus. You stand on a street corner, vulnerable. I was just trying to make sense of some of that." Creating art helped him make sense of the questions that ran through his mind.
When he enrolled at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., Dave experienced some culture shock. "But immediately I started to feel like, ‘I recognize some of this.’ The culture is vastly difference, but the garbage cans are the same," he says.
"‘And look at that, they dump their trash over there, too. I was just trying to make those connections."
While he was in college, Dave discovered clay, set aside his painting and became a potter. For more than a decade after graduating from college, Dave worked primarily in the tradition of Raku pottery. Along the way, Dave felt a call to become a pastor of the ELCA.
"This church gave me a greater context for being human," he says of his childhood at Bethel Lutheran Church of Chicago's Logan Square (which has since closed). "I might have people in my family who were in the penitentiary for murder, but King David killed people, too. Or the person who really helped the tribe survive happened to be a prostitute."
Dave continues, "I never saw the stories in the Bible as being clean. They validated my humanity and how God plays a part in it. God isn't necessarily looking for clean slates to work with and, in fact, never did."
His work in clay, his inner city childhood and some theological reflection all came together last year when was able to take a sabbatical from his pastoral duties, thanks to a Lily Endowment grant.
Dave thought he'd spend the time making lots of pots, but his imagination turned more sculptural.
"I've been informed by the sacred being in the ordinary my whole life," Dave says, "but I found myself, six, seven years ago, being attracted to sewer covers everywhere I went." His eye, conditioned by art making and an urban childhood, saw sewer covers as "exquisite pieces of sculpture."
He began casting sewer covers in clay and then transforming them into birdbaths. The cityscapes of his earliest paintings found new three-dimensional life as the pedestals that held the birdbaths.
"It's some of the same images but used for different purposes," he says. "The images are there, but they don't have the upper hand on what I do with them. They don't have to paralyze me anymore. They can find a way to celebrate life in spite of them, because of them, too."
As a pastor, Dave uses his background as an artist to help his congregation think creatively, challenging them to always try something new.
But when he was called to Peace Lutheran, the challenge was to turn around a declining church in 18 months.
One of the first things they did was to get rid of the pews -- they were mostly empty on Sunday morning anyway -- and start using chairs to sit in circles. They painted a labyrinth on the floor. Dave thinks it’s best to use whatever materials are at hand to be the inspiration and medium for a project.
As an example, he offers this story:
"I had people make kites one year. I bet we had 20 of them in the sanctuary, suspended from the ceiling.
"If you paint a picture of a group of people with flames over their heads and you title it, Pentecost, there's no question," Dave says. "But if you hang giant kites in the sanctuary, with tails blowing through the sanctuary, and there's no title to it, people walk into the sanctuary and they say, 'What is up with the kites?'
"They have their first question. Then you get to engage and they can say 'oh!' or 'huh?'"
Dave concludes, "It's questions that draw us together, not answers. Art at its best does that."
Neil Ellis Orts is a freelance writer, living in Houston. He has written about the arts and religion for a variety of local and national publications.